Shyness, Social Phobia and the Introverted Personality Type – Sorting Them Out

girl alone in crowd

By Matt W Sandford, LMHC

Many folks have just always been shy. They’ve always felt some degree of awkwardness and nervousness in social situations and in some ways have held themselves back, were reserved. And most of us shy folk struggle with this reticence and have deeply wished we could change this aspect of ourselves. When you don’t like something about yourself, you soon turn to believing that that problematic area is something that is wrong, either something to be ‘fixed’ in order to be ‘normal’, or worse, something that cannot be fixed. It seems to me that a lot of folks end up confused about the meaning of their shyness and how to address it. Therefore, I believe it can be helpful to define some of the differences between shyness, social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, and the aspect of personality called introversion.

When people feel shy they are experiencing some discomfort concerning their perception of how they will be thought of by others, mostly with folks they do not know or don’t know well. They are lacking confidence in their ability to perform social skills with adeptness and to make a good impression or they may lack in knowledge and experience of social skills. A person who is shy may be introverted or not and may have social anxiety or may not.

Introversion is an aspect of personality and is compared to extroversion. Most people view introversion as meaning shy or not liking to be around people, and extroversion as being the opposite. However, this would be inaccurate. Introversion and extroversion have to do with where a person gets their energy and prefers to direct their attention. Those who are extroverted get their energy form being with people and like to direct their attention to the external world. The more extroverted one is the more they seek out being with people and feel energized from people contact and a variety of activities. The extrovert often prefers to process their thoughts verbally. Introverts rather get their energy from their inner world and from reflection. Interaction with people and activity can be draining to them, particularly if the activity and interaction is highly stimulating or fast paced. This does not mean that they don’t enjoy being with people; it just means that it requires something of them and they can’t do it forever without a break. Introverts usually are more drained by larger groups or folks they don’t know well, which is why they can be confused with exhibiting shyness.

Social Phobia, or Social Anxiety Disorder, on the other hand, is a mental disorder listed in the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the tome of counseling psychology. The disorder is defined as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” This fear of being scrutinized, judged, embarrassed and rejected causes much anxiety and avoidance of some or maybe many social situations. This is different from shyness and different from introversion, although they do relate to one another. Social Anxiety disorder likely is formed through childhood experiences of being shamed, rejected, belittled, bullied, and/or verbal or emotional abuse. But it can also be formed through experiences of being ignored, shunned, criticized, neglected and/or held to rigid or unrealistic standards of performance. In broad strokes, what I am saying is that social anxiety disorder is the prime disorder that is formed as a result of a lack of love and acceptance. We all learn and incorporate a great deal of our core identity, that is, what we believe about ourselves, from our childhood environment.

There is of course, more to it than that. Some people will experience much shaming in their childhood and not develop social phobia, whereas someone else may experience it to a lesser extent and struggle mightily with social anxieties. The reason for such variation would be due to factors such as the person’s personality, their particular interpretation of the events, their relationship to the perpetrators, the duration and severity and type of shaming they experienced, as well as the presence of systems of support and recovery, meaning if someone had others who did provide acceptance, affirmation and consistent positive regard and to what degree.

When I looked at an Amazon book list on social anxiety, I found it commonly associated with shyness. I suppose that this would be because you can work on the symptoms of them both at the same time with the same approaches. However, this does not mean they are synonymous, or interchangeable. Social Anxiety does result in shyness, or social reticence and discomfort, but the reverse is not true – shyness does not produce Social Anxiety Disorder. Although, certainly for the person suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder, experiences in which they feel and behave as shy will confirm to them their social ineptness and deepen their anxieties. The difference has to do with what a person believes about themselves. The person with social anxiety believes that at their core they are defective, or not good enough, and therefore will not be accepted and approved of by others, at least unless they can hide their true self and perform up to the standards of others. Those who experience shyness, on the other hand, may be having these types of core beliefs about themselves, or they may not. For shyness that is not resulting from social phobia and a shame based sense of self, the shyness is more due to a lack of confidence in social settings, usually because of a lack of experience and helpful modeling. In my opinion then, shyness can be considered as a way to describe a form of low grade social anxiety that falls short of meeting the criteria for the disorder of Social Anxiety Disorder.

Introverts, by nature of their personality and bent towards reflection, would likely have a higher percentage of persons who would characterize themselves as shy. Since introverts won’t seek out meeting new people as often nor stay in social interactions that are draining (or frankly, sometimes, perceived as shallow, and less than stimulating) to them as long, we would expect them to have less opportunities to practice social skills and therefore, develop shyness. As this is developing, it seems to me that it can impact the person in one of two ways. Either their longing for acceptance and connection will grow and propel them to seek out interactions and a place to belong, or they will develop a hardening of their heart to protect them from hurts, with the result being arrogance and aloofness.

So what does all that mean? What if I’m not sure where I stand, and whether I have the disorder or not? Here’s some questions to help you think it through:

  1. Introversion question – Would I rather make a new friend, or invest time in an old friend or two, deepening the relationship?
  2. When I am in a social situation am I usually more concerned about not knowing what to say, or that others will reject or judge me or think poorly of me in some way?
  3. When some kind of opportunity comes around to develop your social skills that will involve engaging other people, do you want to go, even though you are nervous and scared, or is your initial reaction to avoid it?
  4. Your friend invites you to a party in which you will know maybe 2-3 out of 10-15 people. Do you:  A) go, but only spend time with the ones you know well, B) decide that you are going to try and meet some new folks, seeing if you can tag along with one of your friends, or C) avoid it because you wouldn’t know most of the folks there?
  5. Are you more likely to believe that if you could improve your knowledge and confidence that you would improve your self esteem, or that if you made these improvement that you would just find something else to beat yourself up about?
  6. Would you say that your struggles with social situations have impaired your functioning at work, school, or at developing romantic relationships, and would you agree that the degree of your fears concerning social experiences is for the most part more than is warranted?

Answer Key

  1.  introverts would likely choose the second option
  2. shyness for the first option and social phobia for the second
  3. shyness for the first, indication of social phobia for the second
  4. A – introvert or shyness or both, B – shyness, C – indicates Social Phobia
  5. First part – shyness, second part – suggests Social Phobia
  6. If you answer yes, then Social Phobia

I understand that it still may be difficult to delineate between shyness and Social Anxiety Disorder. What I would suggest is that you make a go of developing your social skills by practicing them and see if it increases your confidence. If you find that you are having difficulty in overcoming your avoidance and fears, then I would encourage you to seek counseling.

If you would like to make a counseling appointment with Matt, call 407-647-7005.

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